Standards to ease product deployment

Leading vendors of workflow management software are developing products that will conform to new and proposed interoperability standards, which aim to make it easier for federal users to deploy the technology.

Workflow companies said they hope standards will expand the market for their wares. Vendors and users now agree that no one vendor's products can meet the workflow automation requirements of an entire department or agency. The workflow standards initiative is similar to the Document Management Alliance's efforts in document management [FCW, April 15].

"We see the workflow market developing very rapidly," said Alfons Westgeest, manager of the standards effort for the international Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC), based in Brussels, Belgium. "Standards are important to minimize the risks for users buying products."

Federal agencies are increasingly interested in using workflow to automate functions such as claims processing, procurement and financial management. But many agencies have not fully invested in the technology because current products cannot be easily integrated with each other. Daniel Wu, who represents the Defense Information Systems Agency in the WfMC, said the Defense Department has been a sponsor of the standards effort because DOD wants to be able to "leverage" commercial applications.

"In running more sophisticated and bigger [operations] such as DOD, you probably need a variety of workflow engines to automate business processes," Wu said. Work has to flow across bureaucratic boundaries, and "it's difficult to have a single product to carry out multifunction work."

So far WfMC has published one of five planned standards, a client application programming interface designed to enable users to maintain lists of work items regardless of which workflow product they and their colleagues are using. Several vendors doing business in the federal market, including Action Technologies, IBM Corp., Plexus and XSoft, have announced prototypes that conform to the standard.

So far only one vendor, Computron Software Inc., has made such a product available. Scott Grisanti, director of workflow and computer output to laser disc business development with Computron, said the company has only recently begun to explore federal marketing opportunities.

Two other standards—an interface for business process re-engineering tools and one designed to make the transport mechanisms used by workflow products interoperable—are being drafted. Westgeest said the BPR interface specification would be completed by the end of the year, while a final draft of the interoperability standard is expected to be released next month.

Recently, WfMC members agreed to align the interoperability standard with the workflow component of Microsoft Corp.'s Messaging API (MAPI). At the Association for Information and Image Management trade show in Chicago earlier this month, Microsoft and Wang Laboratories Inc. announced they would release the sample code and documentation of the MAPI Workflow Framework next month.

MAPI Workflow Framework is expected to become the first implementation of the WfMC standard.

The two companies plan to demonstrate interoperability between Wang's OPEN/Workflow product and Microsoft's Exchange groupware software in June.

A fourth standard, which would define functions for administration and monitoring tools, is scheduled to be released for comment in August. The final interface, to standardize the way workflow systems launch external software applications, is also under development.

Shirish Hardikar, vice president of marketing at ViewStar Corp., said the fact that dozens of vendors back the standards effort means that the market is demanding interoperable products.

"If there wasn't that belief, nothing would be published," he said. WfMC currently has 175 members, including vendors and major customers.

Because no vendor has dominated the workflow market and created de facto standards, companies need to develop standards in order to "further market growth," he added.

Westgeest said the standards will evolve as vendors support new platforms, including the Internet.

"The specifications allow for different transport mechanisms," he said, adding that WfMC is currently drafting a paper that will clarify the relationship between workflow software and the Internet for users.

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